Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus stressed this week that he will only sign overseas players when it is absolutely necessary to do so.
He was responding to a question as to whether the current success of the team and the outstanding contributions of players like Jaco Taute, Jean Kleyn, Francis Saili and Rhys Marshall made it easier for him to attract players from the Southern Hemisphere.
“We will only recruit when we need guys,” he insisted. “We were thin at hooker when we got Rhys in, all the guys had long-term injuries and now it will be a nice competition between all the hookers. It is nice when Jean Kleyn, Jaco and Rhys buy into the culture. It isn’t difficult to buy into the Munster culture because it is a nice close-knit family.
“We are not currently looking for ‘foreigners’ if I can call it that. As everyone knows, we are getting James Hart, Chris Farrell in. We are getting some Irish boys in, so if we need someone in some specific area for injury cover or whatever, it is nice to see that guys do adapt quickly.”
The signing of overseas players by the various provinces has been an animated topic of debate for many years. Some believe they are an obstruction to the development of promising Irish talent and currently use as an example the inclusion of Niall Scannell as a last minute replacement for the indisposed Rory Best against Italy. They argue that had Munster succeeded in signing Australian captain Stephen Moore last year, Scannell mightn’t even be a regular on the Munster team.
Against that is the massive contribution “foreigners” have made to the success of the Irish provinces. Would Connacht have won the Guinness Pro12 last year without the many magnificent performances by Bundee Aki? Would Ulster have been as consistent over the last eight years without the presence of South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar and a number of his compatriots?
Brian O’Driscoll had said that Leinster would not have won their first Heineken Cup in 2009 without the power of their Australian back-row forward Rocky Elsom. Munster included three New Zealanders, Doug Howlett, Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi in their Heineken Cup winning three-quarter line in 2008.
There were and still are so many others, most notably Ireland’s man of the moment, South African CJ Stander. And on top of all that is the influence these players have in the development of a whole host of local talent. Quite wisely, Erasmus is not closing the door entirely on acquiring further top-class talent. And he has already shown that he is prepared to go all the way when negotiating with the IRFU to plug any perceived gaps in his squad.
It will be recalled how he made his case to David Nucifora, the IRFU’s director of rugby, so strongly and capably that he was able to hold on to South African centre Jaco Taute when he already had another overseas player, New Zealander Francis Saili, in that position — though the situation appeared to flout the Union’s own rules where two “foreigners” in the same position were not allowed.
The big question is around Saili’s future and whether his contract will be extended beyond this year. He has stated a desire to stay but with Chris Farrell among those signed up for next season and JJ Hanrahan returning from Northampton, it remains to be seen if he can be facilitated. Jaco Taute is here only until the end of the season but he is hugely popular within and outside the squad, has settled superbly well and might well be interested in extending his career here.
All the time, you suspect that Erasmus is keeping an eye out for players — Irish qualified or otherwise — capable of strengthening areas where he feels there may be a lack of strength in depth. The appointment of a forwards coach to replace Anthony Foley is also a definite possibility. It all points to a very positive and exciting scenario for the Munster squad and its passionate supporters.
Erasmus places great significance in the way the overseas contingent have bought into the Munster culture over the years and the magnificent way the team is supported. He declared this week: “That is why I am here, also why Jean de Villiers, Wian du Preez, Doug Howlett and those guys ... that is why they come to Munster. It is easy to adapt.”
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